Who (if Anyone) is Providing Teen Girls Information on Contraception and Safer Sex Practices?

By Rachel Walden — June 26, 2013

The topic of sex education is often a controversial one, with much attention focused on how much (if any) education teens should receive. Implementation of abstinence-only approaches remains widespread, despite objections from health experts and evidence that comprehensive sex-ed is more effective at reducing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

An article just published in the Journal of Adolescent Health explores the type of sex education teens report receiving, and from whom.

Most of the 2,001 teens ages 15 to 19 who took part in the national study describe themselves as white and living in the suburbs, and most of their mothers have at least some college education. The researchers only looked at teens with heterosexual experiences and make no attempt to address how their responses might differ from those of other teens from different backgrounds.

The findings, however, show some clear gaps in sex education. Among teen girls who were already sexually experienced, only about 2 in 3 had received any information on birth control from a parent (the results were about the same for STI prevention), while about 3 in 4 had received birth control information from a teacher.

Almost all girls (95 percent) reported receiving STI-prevention information from a teacher, but it’s not clear how many of those messages may have reflected abstinence-only education. About 1 in 5 girls had not received any birth control information from either parents or teachers.

Boys fared worse on this measure; more than 1 in 3 boys had never received birth control information from a parent or teacher, unless you count simply being given condoms with no additional information. Boys received STI-prevention information from parents or teachers about as often as girls did, and more of them got info from a healthcare provider when they had no other source, but the rates were still low.

Health care providers do not appear to be filling in the information gap for girls. Among the girls who had not received *any* birth control or safer sex info from parents or teachers, less than 1 in 10 got information from a health care provider. In other words, if girls aren’t getting messages about safer sex and contraception at home or school, they’re not likely to get it at all, even from their doctors and nurses.

The authors encourage improved distribution of sexual health information (SHI) in healthcare settings: “Because the majority of sexually experienced adolescents interface with the healthcare system, healthcare providers are missing many important opportunities to deliver SHI to this population.”

They do not provide any specific guidance for providers, but note that with expanded coverage for preventive and sexual health services under the Affordable Care Act, providers may have more opportunities to see teens and address this issue.

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